In October 2014, two months after the fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, dozens of protesters pushing for the prosecution of Brown’s killer, police officer Darren Wilson, gathered outside a St. Louis Cardinals game. The heavily white ticketholders waiting for admittance to the stadium worked to drown out the voice of protesters: what began as “Let’s go, Cardinals,” became “Let’s go, Darren,” a show of support for Wilson. After several minutes, a white woman yelled, “We’re the ones that gave all y’all the freedoms that you have!”
This statement—attributing progress in the fight for black equality in America to the generosity of white Americans—spoke profoundly to David Roediger, author of Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All. He cited this protest and spontaneous counter-protest in conversation with In These Times editor Micah Uetricht at Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-op on April 4. For him, the counter-protest is evidence of the stakes of historical narratives, which have social importance beyond the work of academics and the dry prose of textbooks, and profound implications on our understanding and formation of contemporary politics.
The social importance of historical narratives is a connective chain for his work as a labor historian across decades. He is best known for The Wages of Whiteness, which studies working-class racism in the United States as the complex intersection of economic and psychological motives. It’s easy to see how work regarding the historical creation and maintenance of white racism can recast conversations about race in America today.
Seizing Freedom is an intervention into the most prevalent contemporary historical narrative regarding the Civil War, which relies on Lincoln-centric accounts of emancipation. Roediger’s text calls instead for a narrative of self-emancipation, and he presents his argument on two levels: as a traditional history (a look at the 1860s, the circumstances of slavery’s end, and emancipation’s effects on burgeoning white social movements in America) and as a critique and exploration of other historical accounts of the Civil War in the past quarter-century.
The crux of self-emancipation: when slaves fled plantations in the first few years of the Civil War, they tended to go to Union camps, making the question of slaves’ freedom quite real and quite urgent for the officers charged with deciding whether to return the slaves, keep them with the camp as property apprehended in war, or allow them to fight. In this way, slaves pressed public opinion about emancipation as a possibility and struck into the very function of the plantation system before the federal government stepped in. That government’s intervention was fundamentally an admittance of the political reality that slavery was dead; it wasn’t the savvy leadership of Lincoln standing up for human rights.
Slaves emancipated themselves inside of what historians of the French Revolution call “revolutionary time”—“a period in which the pace of change and the possibility of freedom accelerated the very experience of time.” For Roediger, this radical happening, the most important occurrence in American history, served as an inspiration to other movements, notably women’s suffrage, the white labor movement, and disability studies. Though these movements did not accomplish their lofty goals, or at least not as quickly as some thought they might at the time (the women’s suffrage amendment didn’t happen until 1919), their failings—falling outs, loss of momentum, and more—are fruitful teaching moments for people interested in change today.
Roediger’s writing and speaking are strongest when highlighting the stakes of self-emancipation and the agency of the slaves in their own freedom and afterward. He does not use the term “Reconstruction” for the years following the Civil War—instead, he calls this time “Jubilee,” a concept from Leviticus which Roediger describes as “emancipation…a cyclical time of liberation, of abolition, and of mechanisms of redress that specifically included land redistribution.” To Roediger, Jubilee is preferable to Reconstruction for a few reasons: it’s the name freed slaves would have used, but it is also a way of linking their present situation to a literary moment for a people long denied literacy, and it makes emancipation seem foretold at a time when the majority of white Americans were shocked by the possibility. Most importantly, however, it includes notions of reparations for former slaves and their families that are still at play in modern discourse. “Jubilee” also emphasizes “slaves as modern historical actors,” granting them agency in their own fates and circumstances.
Roediger makes his account compelling through an expansive cast of characters—thinkers, activists, and radicals—reinforcing what we lose by ignoring self-emancipation. Perhaps the most remarkable are the black leaders ignored in contemporary retellings, all of whom are entirely cut out of Steven Spielberg’s 2010 film Lincoln, just one example of Lincoln-centric accounts of emancipation now prominent. These characters include Civil War-era movers and shakers like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as later historians committed to self-emancipation, primarily W.E.B. Du Bois, whose work from the early twentieth century dances across Roediger’s discussion of the construction of black American history, racism, and emancipation.
To some extent, Seizing Freedom is arguing that contemporary Civil War historians should listen to W.E.B. Du Bois. The text opens its great tragedy in chapter four, “Falling Apart: The First Rainbow Coalition and the Waning of Revolutionary Time,” with Du Bois writing in 1935 that the “aftermath of Reconstruction” (Roediger’s words) was “a tragedy that beggared the Greek” (Du Bois’). The revolutionary potential so diffuse in the wake of self-emancipation played out poorly for all involved political movements—along lines of race, gender, and class—and for Roediger and Du Bois both, that is the great tragedy of telling the story of this era.
The most important weakness of the text is, surprisingly, the lack of historical detail fleshing out the argument around self-emancipation. Seizing Freedom is much more interested in its consequences than its substance. The section of the book that deals with slaves as historical actors taking what Frederick Douglass called their “general strike” lasts seven pages, entitled “What Slaves Decided,” and is squished between a more robust discussion of Lincoln and Douglass exchanging ideology in the early 1860s, and the priorities of slaves after freedom. In the introduction, Roediger explains that the self-emancipation narrative was most common during parts of the twentieth century, but very little of that work is retooled here.
This weakness, however, is easy to move past. The force of Roediger’s passion and erudition are the driving force of the ambitious text. By the strength of these virtues, white able-bodied masculinity, sharecropping, women’s suffrage, and late nineteenth century labor protests become inextricably linked with Jubilee. At its most hopeful, Jubilee, like these movements, entails oppression undone, followed by an overhaul of the hierarchies and values of society. These radical movements pulled from self-emancipation both “its powerful ‘moral impetus’ and its practical example.” More than that, the key theorists of emancipation—Douglass, Wendell Phillip, William Lloyd Garrison—were still alive and theorizing after the war, opening up possibilities for coalitions and collaborations across activist causes. The extent of revolution dreamt of in those heady days did not occur—but in Roediger’s telling, it is beautiful and significant that it was even dreamt of in the first place.
Roediger’s broad-based historical knowledge and force of conviction are no less striking in person. Though the traditional historian’s urge to incessantly quote and cite sometimes proved discursively exhausting, it exhibits a deep interest in radical history (this interest corresponds with the company who published Seizing Freedom, Verso Books, which Harper’s calls “Anglo-America’s preeminent radical press”) and processes of change.
At the Co-op, Roediger described the impetus to write this book as the events in Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, another instance of “revolutionary time” whose consequences continue to unfold. In cases like this, close attention to radical processes—both historical and contemporary—become rich ground for activists and scholars alike.
When, toward the end of the conversation, Roediger brings up the words of the white woman at the Cardinals game in St. Louis, it is with an understanding of the full irony. For Roediger, not only did slaves fundamentally emancipate themselves, starting off a century and a half of American racial progress through brave black actors, but this self-emancipation sparked much of women’s suffrage as well, thereby creating many of the freedoms a white woman in America enjoys today.